Gifts from this year's Rabbis Without Borders retreat
February 13, 2018
The first night of this year's Rabbis Without Borders alumni fellows gathering opens with a jam-session-style ma'ariv (evening service). Rabbi Ben Newman of Shtiebl has assembled a set of songs that fit the evening service -- sometimes using English words, often using secular melodies.
(For instance, for our ma'ariv aravim / God-who-brings-on-the-evening prayer, he's set words about evening and transition to the melody of "Good Night, Irene." When people figure out what melody he's chosen, a ripple of satisfaction and laughter flows around the room.) There are a handful of guitars, a tenor ukelele, a djembe, some tambourines, and a couple dozen rabbis singing with gusto. What a glorious way to start the retreat!
The next morning I get to co-lead davenen with Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Evan Krame, two of my Bayit co-founders. Rabbi Evan offers his beautiful singable ashrei variation composed of alphabetical quotes from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Rabbi David offers the Gettysburg Address in haftarah trope because it's Lincoln's birthday. I offer Listen Up, Y'all, which I wrote for a service I co-led here two years ago at this retreat. We interweave nusach (the weekday melody-system) with melodies. We sing in harmony. I come away beaming.
This is one of the things I love most about gatherings like this one: the opportunity to daven with people who care about these words as much as I do. (Not to mention the opportunity to sing in harmony with friends, which is one of the most emotionally and spiritually satisfying things in the world for me.) I lead davenen regularly at my synagogue, and I always get some good "juice" from praying, but there's nothing quite like davening with friends in harmony while relaxing into the way the words and melodies and shared intentions can buoy me.
About half of the programming this year is provided for us / by us -- sessions on the things we're doing, or our areas of expertise, or various forms of self-care for rabbis. My Bayit co-founders and I offer a session on what we're doing and how we hope our RWB colleagues will partner with us. I attend a terrific session on the tension between pursuing social justice and ministering to a politically diverse congregation, and another on mysticism, shamanism, and folk practices (from angels to hamsas to amulets), and another on experiential pluralism through the lens of complementary flavors.
During our plenary sessions (the theme is "Leading in Challenging Times") we hear from Dr. Connor Wood of Faith In Depth, about conservatism and liberalism and how they play out in the religious sphere. We hear from Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins about vocation, balancing the pastoral and the prophetic, and being a religious leader during turbulent times. We break into small groups and discuss pluralism, how we invest our stories with meaning, where and how we build bridges and where and how we draw our lines. Both speakers are good, though honestly I'm here more for the hevreschaft (collegiality / friendship) than for expert speakers.
And the hevreschaft is sweet and satisfying and enriching b'chol olamot (on all levels). Really what draws me here are the conversations: at mealtimes, on couches in the hallways, over coffee in the morning and other beverages once night falls. We talk about life and relationships and transitions and spiritual practice and texts and Torah -- about what we're reading, how we're davening, what brings us joy in our work -- about innovation and pluralism and the cutting edge of spiritual life and what real spiritual R&D might be. This is what I'm thirsty for, in the ordinary sometimes-isolation of serving a congregational community solo, and I drink it up like a happy plant receiving longed-for rain.
When the time comes for me to take my leave of everyone (a bit early -- before the retreat has officially ended, alas) I'm sorry to go... but grateful to have had this opportunity to replenish mind, heart, and spirit with colleagues who care about spiritual life, innovation, and the Jewish future in some of the same ways that I do.